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Living Together

Reflecting on that strangest of times, the dorm year

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September 6-12, 2006


My Year with a Caveman

It wasn't the fact that my roommate was a sociopath, ate my food, stole my stuff and professed to be an ardent anarchist. That I can deal with. I can put up with chronic weed smoking, cheating, repetitious Rent-soundtrack playing, loud chewing, macho posturing, naked sleeping, bar-soap usurping, snoring, farting, stoned poetry reciting, hygiene forsaking, tone-deaf singing, laundry neglecting, early retiring, mess inducing, violence threatening and a colorful variety of other undesirable traits.

The proverbial straw that broke this only child's back came during an exchange we had during our first week together in our palatial freshman digs. Somehow, after a thorough exercise of all other topics familiar to young gentlemen everywhere, the conversation turned to the opposite sex. This prompted me to delicately initiate the often awkward but very important "tie on the door handle" issue.

"Don't flatter yourself," my roomie responded flatly and returned to noisily chewing his pizza.

All right, fuck this guy.

How to deal with the effect of this Cro-Magnon skewing my rosy doctrine of universal intelligence and goodwill? A similar battle has been waged since Darwin, who, after presumably surviving his undergraduacy at Cambridge, published The Origin of Species in 1859. Taking a few pages out of the Church's battle against evolution, I ignored my roommate.

In fact, from late October to the day he flew back to wherever the hell he was from, we did not again exchange a single word. Our lack of verbal correspondence did not, however, stop us from endlessly antagonizing each other. The cruel animosity that grew between us reached epic proportions by Christmas. If either of us came in while the other was sleeping, the lights--all of them--went on. Early wake-up time? Hello, Led Zeppelin. Is someone changing his undies? It must be time to leave and forget to close the door.

Did I mention I go to Stanford? In 2005, over 17,000 applicants were turned down by a Stanford acceptance rate hovering around 10 percent. Several of those applicants were eloquent and deserving friends of mine. How did Fred Flintstone beat out all those enlightened valedictorians?

He was the recipient of the only two-word noun to strike love into the hearts of admission officers nationwide: football scholarship.

The funny thing is, I like football. I made it to all of our home games last season, and I count a few members of the team as friends. But how much is a university like Stanford willing to sacrifice in order to win on the football field? Quite a bit, apparently. The kicker is, after all that salutary neglect of admission standards at Stanford, the football team still really sucks.

--Loren Newman

KISS Off

"Keep it simple, sweetie"--otherwise known as KISS. That phrase proved to be the most effective formula for surviving as an over-the-hill graduate student surrounded by twenty-something classmates.

I turned 40 in the middle of an intensive one-year master's program in journalism, which meant I went from a steady, reasonably comfortable job income to living on my savings and student loans. I streamlined my lifestyle on many levels.

First, I stored, gave away or donated most of my furniture. There wasn't a lot of room in graduate student housing and, frankly, I was too busy with the nearly overwhelming requirements of the program to maintain much more than the bare necessities. A comfy bed in a reasonably quiet room. A desk with my computer and all my study supplies within reach. A place to cook minimal meals (with both a stovetop and a microwave) and a place to consume them. Two plates with silverware. A fry pan, a sauce pan and a set of storage containers. A drinking glass in the kitchen and one for water in the bathroom. Simplifying my focus.

I didn't try to compete with my youthful classmates, on any level. They could pull all-nighters, finishing up a term paper or cramming for an exam. I needed my rest, not for my beauty but for my sanity. Thus the emphasis on a quiet bedroom of my own. It didn't need to be pretty or cushy; it just needed to be sleepable.

My fellow students also invited me to a number of late-night parties, invitations that I tended to decline. I missed the barfing-off-the-16th-floor-balcony contest. That's much too complex of an activity for my KISS approach to graduate school.

For one year, I simplified, I streamlined, I persevered. I graduated.

--Patricia Lynn Henley

Livin' on the Edge

Blinded by my optimism and naÔvetÈ, I set sail for the college dorms one year ago thinking I was totally invincible. My disillusionment took about a month. Many college students love to complain about how small their dorm rooms are, but mine really was. Being in my room was like going to the bathroom on an airplane: there was only enough room for the essential activities.

There was little opportunity for wall decorations. My roommate, about the height of Michael Jordan, cut the space down by 30 percent. Not to mention he understood the word "neat" only in reference to alcoholic drinks. But here's the silver lining: the room was so small, they're converting it into a single next year. And who gets to keep his old room for another year, minus one bed, one desk and one 6-foot-5-inch roommate? Yours truly.

I go to college in Illinois, and the frigid winters there have a curious effect on the quaint Midwestern folk. Perhaps in an attempt to impress visitors, they turn up their thermostats ridiculously high. Our dorm sweltered in the winter. Sure it's cold outside, but why overcompensate? It's like buying a Hummer for the extra legroom.

It's wasteful and it pollutes.

Our solution was to open the windows. The 90 degree temperature inside and the 15 degree temperature outside made a somewhat happy medium. But the eco-friendly Californian inside me died a little bit each time I reapplied my antiperspirant.

The bright side? Experiencing the frivolity of the Midwestern furnace made me twice as environmentally conscious as I was before college. Thanks to their pollution, I'm a little bit greener.

The worst thing--and the best thing--about living in the dorms is the extreme lack of privacy. I can't begin to count how many phone conversations I unwillingly overheard in the rooms near mine. Shouting fights with parents, sobbing fights with long-distance girlfriends, emotional reconciliations with said girlfriends (some bordering on phone sex), all broadcast to one's very uncomfortable suitemates.

Of course, the inadvertent invasion of privacy goes both ways. Any given phone call to my friends required a little self-censorship and a low speaking voice. I found myself relocating at least three times per conversation to escape the Big Brother atmosphere.

Although it was bothersome, that kind of exposed environment helped us make friends very quickly. After a few weeks, we knew each other's personal lives inside and out.

There were definite cons to the communal lifestyle, but I have no regrets. There's a certain satisfaction in having to deal with the hardships of dorm life. College is about new experiences, even when they're difficult. The dorm is something every student should suffer through.

--Andrew Bowen

Medieval Madness

It was my freshman year at Duke University, and the first time in three decades that the Epworth dorm was going to be "normal." Since the 1970s, Epworth had been the black sheep of dorm life, housing the small alternative SHARE community, which offered film and silk-screening classes along with a gay-friendly environment. But SHARE (Student Housing for Academic and Residential Experimentation) got moved to an eyesore of a site right before I arrived in 1998.

Compared to the other dorms on campus--massive, brick colonials built to house up to 300 students each--Epworth was a small and cozy oddball. An old beauty of a building, Epworth opened in 1894, and even after fire destroyed two-thirds of it, it retained two capacious porches and a large balcony. From the outside, Epworth looked like a Faulknerian mansion, yet it housed only 50 of us, half of whom had opted to immerse ourselves in an intensive Medieval studies program.

Being the clever collegians we thought we were, we convinced our Medieval bodies of literature professor to let us out of writing a final paper for her class. Instead, we'd stage a pageant play we were reading in class for the final. What better place to perform The Last Judgment than the oldest dorm on campus? Plus, Epworth's double-tiered balcony would make the perfect set: the top level would be Heaven; the bottom, Hell.

To break up the boredom of reading an entire script in Middle English, we relied somewhat unsuccessfully on an avant-garde staging technique. We set the play within the context of a basketball game pitting Duke and its rival, University of North Carolina, against each other. Some of us played the damned--UNC basketball players--while the Duke Blue Devils would actually be the saved.

Three of us were angels incarnated as Duke cheerleaders. We wore white tennis skirts, performed synchronized moves we'd rehearsed at length in the parking lot and chanted odes that snappily began: "Loft be thou, Lord of Mights most . . . " My friend Anna was God on the upper balcony, projecting her voice from behind a mirror reflecting trees.

The play was long. Even as an actor, I got bored waiting for all the damning and saving to wrap up. The audience was small, since most of the people who took any interest in Medieval performance were in the play.

Although Epworth was finally flying solo from the alternative living group that preceded us, the dorm had somehow absorbed the SHARE program's commitment to experimentation, making us all a bit odd. But we didn't mind being on the fringe. For us players, quirkiness was closer to Godliness.

--Brett Ascarelli





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